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Management Tip (6): Short Staffed? You May Think it - But Don't Say It!

Don’t say you're short of staff – you can think it but don’t say it.

You may well have more work than staff to do it. Yep, most people know what that's like.

However, if you say (or worse, keep saying) that your section or department is short of staff, two things may happen:

1 Everybody, especially your line manager, will think you’re a person who has nothing positive to say, who is always whining and complaining.

2 Your line manager will think you can’t cope with the workload you have and you'll be identified as a poor manager.

I had a team leader in a regional office whose team was doing the same (or less) work than the other teams. Every time I rang him or we had a video conference meeting he would always tell me how hard his team was working and how bad the workload was and how much time pressure they were all under and how he needed 2 or 3 more people to be able to cope.

Every time.

It got very wearing and I regretted that he had been promoted to the post. In my mind, his attitude called his management abilities into question. I repeatedly explained the situation to him but he never gave up. Perhaps he thought he was doing the best for his team and the organisation. However, there are ways of going about that. I always tried not to give my boss a problem without a potential solution, or at least, options.

You can think you are short of staff but don't say it. This was something I learned from a colleague many years ago in the UK CAA. By the way, learning from other managers is a useful technique – see my article Learn from Bad Managers (and Good).

I accept that, as a manager, it is my responsibility to tell my managers or team leaders what the organisation’s priorities are with regard to resources. The bigger picture within the organisation may be that staff are required more in another area, their needs are greater than ours and any new staff will be recruited to that area. That information should be communicated to the team so that they all know why they are not going to get the extra staff they want.

I think it is also beneficial if the reason for the workload pressure can be explained in terms of the goals of the organisation. Many years ago, the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, for whom I worked at the time, was given an expectation by the Minister that the new suite of aviation safety regulations would be written and rolled out within 5 years. That was a major, high-level goal. Therefore, I passed on to my team that the Standards Division, where the new regulations were to be written, would be the highest priority for recruitment and resources. I was clear that my Division would have to cope with whatever we had and, in some cases, I would have to give up some posts as they became vacant so that they could be moved to Standards.

There are ways of dealing with too much work for too few staff. One way is to prioritise the workload.

I found that carrying out risk assessments on the work that we were meant to be doing was a useful way of identifying those items which needed to be done first. There's a short article about risk assessing work here. I have also written an article on time management and workload prioritisation on my website

We would risk assess all the tasks, place them in order of priority and then allocate resources in order of merit to carry out the work. There would always be stuff at the bottom of the list that we never did but they were always the lowest risk: least import, least urgent items.

I worked in a safety sensitive industry so I went to my boss with good evidence that we could do the top items on the list but nothing below those. If the boss felt that there were tasks lower on the list that needed doing then he could choose to apply assets and resources to that work. That’s why he got the big money.

Bear in mind also that it is my responsibility to bring anything which I think should be done, that isn’t being done, to my boss – he is ultimately accountable for it.

Many people don’t like filling in time sheets (or computerised equivalents). I have supported the use of time sheets ever since I had a success using the data from them. The section I was managing at that time in the UK Civil Aviation Authority (about 10 people) had too much work. There were only 2 air traffic controllers (ATC) in the section (including me), the others were air traffic engineers.

I was able to use the evidence from the time sheets to show that the two of us were working much longer hours than we were being paid for – about 25% more each.

I was also able to show from the risk assessment and workload priority list that, even with the extra hours we were doing, there was important work which we were unable to do - enough for another half to one person – but we were just never getting to it.

The evidence of the combination of important, urgent work not being addressed and long hours gave my line manager enough evidence to allocate one more ATC to my section. It worked!

I didn't say I didn't have enough staff. I said that there are these items of work that we are not doing and for these reasons (we are doing these other, higher priority tasks). If my manager wanted us to address the lower priority tasks we would need more resources (in the form of a person, salary, a desk, computer etc).

So, if I am asked if I am short of staff I say that I am managing the workload by prioritising the tasks but there is some low priority work that we are not doing.

This article is just my view of the topic at title. Like a lot of people, I’ve done some training in management techniques but there is no substitute for experience. In my case, a bit of trial and error, learning from my mistakes, watching other managers and a little common sense. I hope you found it of interest and assistance.

Peter Cromarty

Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes.

View his Linked In profile.

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